TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as possible; please see detailed list of printing issues at the end of the text.
A VILLAGE OF VAGABONDS
By F. BERKELEY SMITH
Author of "The Lady of Big Shanty."
A. L. BURT COMPANY PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT, 1910, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY PUBLISHED MAY, 1910
COPYRIGHT, 1909, 1910, BY SMITH PUBLISHING HOUSE
* * * * *
I. The House by the Marsh 3
II. Monsieur le Cure 35
III. The Exquisite Madame de Breville 63
IV. The Smugglers 91
V. Marianne 120
VI. The Baron's Perfectos 151
VII. The Horrors of War 186
VIII. The Million of Monsieur de Savignac 213
IX. The Man with the Gun 245
X. The Bells of Pont du Sable 274
XI. The Miser—Garron 308
XII. Midwinter Flights 339
* * * * *
A VILLAGE OF VAGABONDS
A Village of Vagabonds
THE HOUSE BY THE MARSH
It was in fat Madame Fontaine's little cafe at Bar la Rose, that Norman village by the sea, that I announced my decision. It being market-day the cafe was noisy with peasants, and the crooked street without jammed with carts. Monsieur Torin, the butcher, opposite me, leaned back heavily from his glass of applejack and roared.
Monsieur Pompanet, the blacksmith, at my elbow, put down his cup of black coffee delicately in its clean saucer and opened his honest gray eyes wide in amazement. Simultaneously Monsieur Jaclin, the mayor, in his freshly ironed blouse, who for want of room was squeezed next to Torin, choked out a wheezy "Bon Dieu!" and blew his nose in derision.
"Pont du Sable—Bon Dieu!" exclaimed all three. "Pont du Sable—Bon Dieu!"
"Cristi!" thundered Torin. "You say you are going to live in Pont du Sable? Helas! It is not possible, my friend, you are in earnest!"
"That lost hole of a village of sacre vagabonds," echoed Pompanet. "Why, the mud when the tide is out smells like the devil. It is unhealthy."
"Pere Bordier and I went there for ducks twenty years ago," added the mayor. "We were glad enough to get away before dark. B-r-r! It was lonely enough, that marsh, and that dirty little fishing-village no longer than your arm. Bah! It's a hole, just as Pompanet says."
Torin leaned across the table and laid a heavy hand humanely on my shoulder.
"Take my advice," said he, "don't give up that snug farm of yours here for a lost hole like Pont du Sable."
"But the sea-shooting is open there three hundred and sixty-five days in the year," I protested, with enthusiasm. "I'm tired of tramping my legs off here for a few partridges a season. Besides, what I've been looking for I've found—a fine old abandoned house with a splendid old courtyard and a wild garden. I had the good luck to climb over a wall and discover it."
"I know the place you mean," interrupted the mayor. "It was a post-tavern in the old days before the railroad ran there."
"And later belonged to the estate of the Marquis de Lys," I added proudly. "Now it belongs to me."
"What! You've bought it!" exclaimed Torin, half closing his veal-like eyes.
"Yes," I confessed, "signed, sealed, and paid for."
"And what the devil do you intend to do with that old stone pile now that you've got it?" sneered Jaclin. "Ah! You artists are queer fellows!"
"Live in it, messieurs," I returned as happily as I could, as I dropped six sous for my glass into Madame Fontaine's open palm, and took my leave, for under the torrent of their protest I was beginning to feel I had been a fool to be carried away by my love of a gun and the picturesque.
The marsh at Pont du Sable was an old friend of mine. So were the desert beach beyond the dunes, and the lost fishing-village—"no longer than your arm." I had tramped in wind and rain and the good sunlight over that great desert of pasty black clay at low tide. I had lain at high tide in a sand-pit at the edge of the open sea beyond the dunes, waiting for chance shots at curlew and snipe. I had known the bay at the first glimmer of dawn with a flight of silver plovers wheeling for a rush over my decoys. Dawn—the lazy, sparkling noon and the golden hours before the crisp, still twilight warned me it was high time to start back to Bar la Rose fourteen kilometres distant. All these had become enchanting memories.
Thus going to Pont du Sable for a day's shooting became a weekly delight, then a biweekly fascination, then an incorrigible triweekly habit. There was no alternative left me now but to live there. The charm of that wild bay and its lost village had gotten under my skin. And thus it happened that I deserted my farm and friends at Bar la Rose, and with my goods and chattels boarded the toy train one spring morning, bound for my abandoned house, away from sufficient-unto-itself Bar la Rose and its pigheaded inhabitants, the butcher, the blacksmith, and the mayor.
* * * * *
It is such a funny little train that runs to my new-found Paradise, rocking and puffing and grumbling along on its narrow-gauge track with its cars labelled like grown-up ones, first, second, and third class; and no two painted the same colour; and its noisy, squat engine like the real ones in the toy-stores, that wind up with a key and go rushing off frantically in tangents. No wonder the train to my lost village is called "Le petit deraillard"—"The little get-off-the-track." And so I say, it might all have come packed in excelsior in a neat box, complete, with instructions, for the sum of four francs sixty-five centimes, had it not been otherwise destined to run twice daily, rain or shine, to Pont du Sable, and beyond.
Poor little train! It is never on time, but it does its best. It is at least far more prompt than its passengers, for most of them come running after it out of breath.
"Hurry up, mademoiselle!" cries the engineer to a rosy-cheeked girl in sabots, rushing with a market-basket under one arm and a live goose under the other. "Eh, my little lady, you should have gotten out of bed earlier!" laughs the conductor as he pulls her aboard.
"Toot! Toot!" And off goes the little get-off-the-track again, rocking and rumbling along past desert stretches of sand dunes screening the blue sea; past modern villas, isolated horrors in brick, pink, and baby blue, carefully planted away from the trees. Then suddenly the desert is left behind! Past the greenest of fields now, dotted with sleek, grazing cattle; past groves of pine; past snug Norman farms with low-thatched roofs half-smothered in yellow roses. Again the dunes, as the toy train swings nearer the sea. They are no longer desert wastes of sand and wire-grass, but covered now with a riot of growing things, running in one rich congested sweep of orchards, pastures, feathery woodlands and matted hedges down to the very edge of the blue sea.
A sudden turn, and the toy train creeps out of a grove of pines to the open bay. It is high tide. A flight of plover, startled by the engine, go wheeling away in a silver streak to a spit of sand running out from the marsh. A puff of smoke from the sand-spit, and the band leaves two of its members to a gentleman in new leather leggings; then, whistling over the calamity that has befallen them, they wheel again and strike for the open sea and safety.
Far across the expanse of rippling turquoise water stands a white lighthouse that at dusk is set with a yellow diamond. Snug at the lower end of the bay, a long mile from where the plovers rise, lies the lost village. Now the toy train is crawling through its crooked single street, the engine-bell ringing furiously that stray dogs and children, and a panicky flock of sheep may have time to get out of the way. The sheep are in charge of a rough little dog with a cast in one eye and a slim, barelegged girl who apologizes a dozen times to monsieur the engineer between her cries to her flock.
"They are not very well brought up, my little one—those sacred mutton of yours," remarks the engineer as he comes to a dead stop, jumps out of his cab, and helps straighten out the tangle.
"Ah, monsieur!" sighs the girl in despair. "What will you have? It is the little black one that is always to blame!"
The busy dog crowds them steadily into line. He seems to be everywhere at once, darting from right to left, now rounding up a stubborn ewe and her first-born, now cornering the black one.
"Toot! Toot!" And the little get-off-the-track goes rumbling on through the village, past the homes of the fishermen—a straggling line of low stone houses with quaint gabled roofs, and still quainter chimneys, and old doorways giving glimpses of dark interiors and dirt floors. Past the modest houses of the mayor, the baker, the butcher and Monsieur le Cure; then through the small public square, in which nothing ever happens, and up to a box of a station.
"Pont du Sable!" cries the conductor, with as much importance as if he had announced Paris.
I have arrived.
* * * * *
There was no doubt about my new-found home being abandoned! The low stone wall that tempered the wind from courtyard and garden was green with lichens. The wide stone gateway, with its oaken doors barred within by massive cross-hooks that could have withstood a siege; the courtyard, flanked by the house and its rambling appendages that contained within their cavernous interiors the cider-press and cellars; the stable with its long stone manger, and next it the carved wooden bunk for the groom of two centuries ago; the stone pig-sty; the tile-roofed sheds—all had about them the charm of dignified decay.
But the "chateau" itself!
Generations of spiders had veiled every nook and corner within, and the nooks and corners were many. These cobwebs hung in ghostly festoons from the low-beamed ceiling of the living room, opening out upon the wild garden. They continued up the narrow stone stairway leading to the old-fashioned stone-paved bedrooms; they had been spun in a labyrinth all over the generous, spooky, old stone-paved attic, whose single eye of a window looked out over the quaint gables and undulating tiled roofs of adjoining attics, whose dark interiors were still pungent with the tons of apples they had once sheltered. Beyond my rambling roofs were rich orchards and noble trees and two cool winding lanes running up to the green country beyond.
Ten days of strenuous settling passed, at the end of which my abandoned house was resuscitated, as it were. Without Suzette, my little maid-of-all-work, it would have been impossible. I may say we attacked this seemingly superhuman task together—and Suzette is so human. She has that frantic courage of youth, and a smile that is irresistible.
"To-morrow monsieur shall see," she said. "My kitchen is clean—that is something, eh? And the beds are up, and the armoires, and nearly all of monsieur's old studio furniture in place. Eh, ben! To-morrow night shall see most of the sketches hung and the rugs beaten—that is again something, eh? Then there will be only the brass and the andirons and the guns to clean."
Ten days of strenuous attack, sometimes in the rain, and when I hammer my fingers in the rain I swear horribly; the average French saw, too, would have placed Job in a sanitarium. Suzette's cheery smile is a delight, and how her sturdy, dimpled arms can scrub, and dust, and cook, and clean. When she is working at full steam she invariably sings; but when her souffle does not souffle she bursts into tears—this good little peasant maid-of-all-work!
And so the abandoned house by the marsh was settled. Now there is charm, and crackling fires o' nights within, and sunny breakfasts in the garden without—a garden that grew to be gay with flowers, and is still in any wind, thanks to my friend the lichen-stained wall over which clamber vines and all manner of growing things; and sometimes my kitten with her snow-white breast, whose innocent green eyes narrow to slits as she watches for hours two little birds that are trying to bring up a small family in the vines. I have told her plainly if she even touches them I will boil her in oil. "Do you hear, Miquette?" and she turns away and licks her pink paw as if she had not heard—you essence of selfishness that I love!
Shall I tell you who is coming to dine to-night, Green-eyes? Our neighbours! Madame Alice de Breville who spoils you, and the Marquis de Clamard who does not like pussy-cats, but is too well-bred to tell you so, and the marquise who flatters you, and Blondel! Don't struggle—you cannot get away, I've got you tight. You are not going to have your way all the time. Look at me! Claws in and your ears up! There! And Tanrade, that big, whole-souled musician, with his snug old house and his two big dogs, either one of which would make mince-meat of you should you have the misfortune to mistake his garden for your own. Madame de Breville—do you hear?—who has but to half close her eyes to make Tanrade forget his name. He loves her madly, you see, pussy-kit!
Ah, yes! The lost village! In which the hours are never dull. Lost village! With these Parisian neighbours, whose day of discovery antedated mine by several years. Lost village! In which there are jolly fishermen and fishergirls as pretty as some gipsies—slim and fearless, a genial old mayor, an optimistic blacksmith, and a butcher who is a seigneur; gentle old women in white caps, blue-eyed children, kind dogs, fresh air, and life!
There is a mysterious fascination about that half-hour before the first glimmer of dawn. The leaves, this September morning, are shivering in the dusk of my garden; the house is as silent as my sleeping cat save for the resonant tick-tock, tick-tock, of the tall Norman clock in the kitchen, to which I tiptoe down and breakfast by candle-light.
You should see the Essence of Selfishness then as she purrs around a simmering saucepan of milk destined for my coffee, and inspects the toast and jam, and sniffs at my breech-loader, well greased with neatsfoot-oil, and now the ghostly light in the courtyard tells me to hurry out on the bay.
Low tide. Far out on the desert of black clay a colony of gulls have spent the night. Their quarrelsome jargon reaches me as I cautiously raise my head over the dunes, for often a band of plover is feeding at dawn out on the mud, close enough for a shot. Nothing in view save the gulls, those gossiping concierges of the bay, who rise like a squall of snow as I make a clean breast of my presence, and start across the soggy, slippery mud toward the marsh running out to the open sea. A curlew, motionless on his long legs, calls cheerfully from the point of sand: "Curli—Curli!" Strong, cheerful old bird. The rifts of white mist are lifting from the bay, thinned into rose vapour now, as the sun creeps above the green hillsides.
Swish! Three silver plovers flash back of me—a clean miss. If we never missed we should never love a gun. It is time now to stalk the bottoms of the narrow, winding causeways that drain the bay. Their beds at low tide are full of dead mussels, dormant clams, and awkward sputtering crabs; the old ones sidling away from you with threatening claws wide open for combat; the young ones standing their ground bravely, in ignorance.
Swish again! But this time I manage to kill them both—two fat golden plovers. The Essence of Selfishness shall have her fill at noon, and the pupils of her green eyes will contract in ecstasy as she crunches and gnaws.
Now all the bay is alive. Moreover, the sea is sweeping in, filling the bay like a bath-tub, obliterating the causeways under millions of dancing ripples of turquoise. Soon my decoys are out, and I am sunk in a sand-pit at the edge of the sea. The wind holds strong from the northeast, and I am kept busy until my gun-barrels are too hot to be pleasant. All these things happen between dawn and a late breakfast in my garden.
Suzette sang all day. It is always so with Suzette upon the days when the abandoned house is giving a dinner. The truth is, Suzette loves to cook; her pride and her happiness increase as the hour appointed for my guests to arrive approaches. With Suzette it is a delightful event.
The cracked jingle-bell over my stone gateway had jingled incessantly since early morning, summoning this good little Norman maid-of-all-work to slip her trim feet into her sabots and rush across the court to open the small door piercing my wall beside the big gates. Twice for beggars, once for the grocer's boy, three times for the baker—who had, after all, forgotten the brioche; again for the baker's boy, who invariably forgets if he thinks there is another chance in his forgetting, of paying a forgotten compliment to Suzette. I heard his mother scolding him yesterday. His bread, which he kneads and bakes himself before dawn, is losing its lightness. There is little harmony between rising yeast and a failing heart. Again the bell jingles; this time it is the Mere Marianne, with a basket of quivering, iridescent mackerel just in from the night's fishing.
Mere Marianne, who once was a village belle, is now thirty-three years of age, strong as a man, fair-haired, hatless, bronzed by the sun, salt-tanned, blue-eyed, a good mother to seven fair-haired, blue-eyed children; yet a hard, amiable drinker in her leisure hours after a good catch.
"Bonjour, my all beautiful!" she greets Suzette as the door opens.
"Bonjour, madame!" returns Suzette, her cheeks flushed from her kitchen fire.
The word "madame" seems out of place, for Mere Marianne wears her man's short tarpaulin coat cinched about her waist with a thin tarred rope. Her sinewy legs, bare to the knees, are tightly incased in a pair of sea-soaked trousers.
"So monsieur is having his friends to dinner," she rattles on garrulously, swinging her basket to the ground and kneeling before it. "I heard it as I came up the road from Blancheville's girl, who had it from the Mere Taurville. Eh ben! What do you think of these?" she adds in the same breath, as she turns up two handsful of live mackerel. "Six sous apiece to you, my pretty one. You see I came to you first; I'm giving them to you as cheap as if you were my own daughter."
"Come, be quick," returns Suzette. "I have my lobster to boil and my roast to get ready; four sous if you like, but not a sou more."
"Four sous! Bon Dieu! I would rather eat them myself. They only lack speech to tell you themselves how fresh they are. Look at them!"
"Four sous," insists Suzette. "Do you think monsieur is rich enough to buy the republique."
"Allez! Then, take them at four sous." And Mere Marianne laughs, slips the money into her trousers pocket, and goes off to another bargain in the village, where, if she gets two sous for her mackerel she will be lucky.
At six Suzette lifts the Burgundy tenderly from its resting-place in a closet beneath the winding stone stairs—a stone closet, low, sinister, and dark, that suggests the solitary dungeons of feudal times. Three cobwebbed bottles of Burgundy are now carefully ranged before the crackling blaze in the living room. At six-thirty Suzette lays the generous dark-oak table in lace and silver, thin glasses, red-shaded candles, and roses—plenty of roses from the garden. Her kitchen by this time is no longer open to visitors. It has become a sacred place, teeming with responsibility—a laboratory of resplendent shining copper sauce-pans, pots and casseroles, in which good things steam and stew and bubble under lids of burnished gold, which, when lifted, give one a rousing appetite.
* * * * *
I knew Tanrade's ring—vigorous and hearty, like himself. You would never guess this sturdy, broad-shouldered man has created delicious music—fairy ballets, pantomimes, and operettas. All Paris has applauded him for years, and his country has rewarded him with a narrow red ribbon. Rough-bearded, bronzed like a sailor, his brown eyes gleam with kindness and intelligence. The more I know this modest great man the more I like him, and I have known him in all kinds of wind and weather, for Tanrade is an indefatigable hunter. He and I have spent nights together in his duck-blind—a submerged hut, a murderous deceit sunk far out on the marsh—cold nights; soft moonlight nights—the marsh a mystic fairy-land; black nights—-mean nights of thrashing rain. Nights that paled to dawn with no luck to bring back to Suzette's larder. Sunny mornings after lucky nights, when Tanrade and I would thaw out over our coffee in the garden among the roses.
Tanrade had arrived early, a habit with this genial gourmand when the abandoned house is giving a dinner, for he likes to supervise the final touches. He was looking critically over the three cobwebbed bottles of his favourite Burgundy now warming before my fire, and having tenderly lifted the last bottle in the row to a place which he considered a safer temperature, he straightened and squared his broad shoulders to the blaze.
"I'll send you half a dozen more bottles to-morrow," he said.
"No, you won't, my old one," I protested, but he raised his hand and smiled.
"The better the wine the merrier shall be the giver. Eighteen bottles left! Eh bien! It was a lucky day when that monastery was forced to disband," he chuckled, alluding to the recent separation of the church from the state. "Vive la Republique!" He crossed the room to the sideboard and, having assured himself the Camembert was of the right age, went singing into Suzette's kitchen to glance at the salad.
"Bravo, my little one, for your romaine!" I heard him exclaim.
Then a moment's silence ensued, while he tasted the dressing. "Sacristi! My child, do you think we are rabbits. Helas! Not a bit of astragon in your seasoning! A thousand thunders! A salad is not a salad without astragon. Come, be quick, the lantern! I know where the bed is in the garden."
"Ah, monsieur Tanrade! To think I should have forgotten it!" sighed the little maid. "If monsieur will only let me hold the lantern for him!"
"There, there! Never mind! See, you are forgiven. Attend to your lobster. Quick, your soup is boiling over!" And he went out into the garden in search of the seasoning.
Suzette adores him—who does not in the lost village? He had rewarded her with a two-franc piece and forgiven her with a kiss.
I had hardly time to open the big gates without and light the candles within under their red shades glowing over the mass of roses still wet from the garden, before I heard the devilish wail of a siren beyond the wall; then a sudden flash of white light from two search-lights illumined the courtyard, and with a wrenching growl Madame Alice de Breville's automobile whined up to my door. The next instant the tip of a little patent-leather slipper, followed by the trimmest of silken ankles framed in a frou-frou of creamy lace, felt for the steel step of the limousine. At the same moment a small white-gloved hand was outstretched to mine for support.
"Bonsoir, dear friend," she greeted me in her delicious voice. "You see how punctual I am. L'heure militaire—like you Americans." And she laughed outright, disclosing two exquisite rows of pearls, her soft, dark eyes half closing mischievously as she entered my door—eyes as black as her hair, which she wore in a bandeau. The tonneau growled to its improvised garage under the wood-shed.
She was standing now in the hall at the foot of the narrow stone stairs, and as I slipped the long opera-cloak of dove-gray from her shoulders as white as ivory, she glided out of it, and into the living room—a room which serves as gun room, dining room and salon.
"Stand where you are," I said, as madame approached the fire. "What a portrait!"
She stopped, the dancing light from the flames playing over her lithe, exquisite figure, moulded in a gown of scintillating scales of black jet. Then, seeing I had finished my mental note of line and composition, she half turned her pretty head and caught sight of the ruby, cobwebbed row of old Burgundy.
"Ah! Tanrade's Burgundy!" she exclaimed with a little cry of delight.
"How did you guess?"
"Guess! One does not have to guess when one sees as good Burgundy as that. You see I know it." She stretched forth her firm white arms to the blaze.
"Where is he, that good-for-nothing fellow?" she asked.
"In the garden after some astragon for the salad."
She tripped to the half-open door leading to the tangled maze of paths.
"Tanrade! Tanrade! Bonsoir, ami!" she called.
"Bonsoir, Madame Punctual," echoed his great voice from the end of the garden, and again he broke forth in song as he came hurrying back to the house with his lantern and his bunch of seasoning. Following at his heels trotted the Essence of Selfishness.
"Oh, you beauty!" cried Alice. She nodded mischievously to Tanrade, who rushed to the piano, and before the Essence of Selfishness had time to elude her she was picked up bodily, held by her fore paws and forced to dance upon her hind legs, her sleek head turned aside in hate, her velvety ears flattened to her skull.
"Dance! Dance!" laughed Alice. "One—two, one—two! Voila!" The next instant Miquette was caught up and hugged to a soft neck encircled with jewels. "There, go! Do what you like, Mademoiselle Independent!"
And as Miquette regained her liberty upon her four paws, the Marquis and Marquise de Clamard announced their arrival by tapping on the window, so that for the moment the cozy room was deserted save by Miquette, who profited during the interval by stealing a whole sardine from the hors-d'oeuvres.
Another good fellow is the marquis—tall, with the air of a diplomat, the simplicity of a child, and the manners of a prince. Another good friend, too, is the marquise. They had come on foot, these near-by neighbours, with their lantern. Was there ever such a marquise? This once famous actress, who interpreted the comedies of Moliere. Was there ever a more charming grandmother? Ah! You do not look it even now with your gray hair, for you are ever young and witty and gracious. She clapped her hands as she peered across the dinner-table to the row before the chimney.
"My Burgundy, I see!" she exclaimed, to my surprise; Tanrade was gazing intently at a sketch. "Oh, you shall see," added the marquise seriously. "You are not the only one, my friend, the gods have blessed. Did you not send me a dozen bottles this morning, Monsieur Tanrade? Come, confess!"
He turned and shrugged his shoulders.
"Impossible! I cannot remember. I am so absent-minded, madame," and he bent and kissed her hand.
"Where's Blondel?" cried Clamard, as he extracted a thin cigarette-case from his waistcoat.
"He'll be here presently," I explained.
"It's a long drive for him," added the marquise, a ring of sympathy in her voice. "Poor boy, he is working so hard now that he is editor of La Revue Normande. Ah, those wretched politics!"
"He doesn't mind it," broke in Tanrade, "he has a skin like a bear—driving night and day all over the country as he does. What energy, mon Dieu!"
"Oh!" cried Madame de Breville, "Blondel shall sing for us 'L'Histoire de Madame X.' You shall cry with laughter."
"And 'Le Brigadier de Tours,'" added Tanrade.
The sound of hoofs and the rattle of a dog-cart beyond the wall sent us hurrying to the courtyard.
"Eh, voila!" shouted Tanrade. "There he is, that good Blondel!"
"Suzette!" I cried as I passed the kitchen. "The vermouth!"
"Eh, Blondel, there is nothing to eat, you late vagabond!"
A black mare steaming from her hot pace of twelve miles, drawing a red-wheeled dog-cart, entered the courtyard.
"A thousand pardons," came a voice out of a bearskin coat, "my editorial had to go to press early, or I should have been here half an hour ago."
Then such a greeting and a general rush to unharness the tired mare, the marquis tugging at one trace and I at the other, while Tanrade backed the cart under the shed next to the cider-press, Alice de Breville and the marquise holding the mare's head. All this, despite the pleadings of Blondel, who has a horror of giving trouble—the only man servant to the abandoned house being Pierre, who was occupied at that hour in patrolling the coast in the employ of the French Republique, looking out for possible smugglers, and in whose spare hours served me as gardener. And so the mare was led into the stable with its stone manger, where every one helped with halter, blanket, a warm bed, and a good supper; Alice de Breville holding the lantern while the marquise bound on the mare's blanket with a girdle of straw.
"Monsieur, dinner is served," announced Suzette gently as she entered the stable.
"Vive Suzette!" shouted the company. "Allons manger, mes enfants!"
They found their places at the table by themselves. In the abandoned house there is neither host nor formality, but in their stead comradeship, understanding, and good cheer.
Blondel is delightful. You can always count on him for the current events with the soup, the latest scandal with the roast, and a song of his own making with the cheese. What more can one ask? It all rolls from him as easily as the ink from his clever pen; it is as natural with him as his smile or the merriment in his eyes.
During the entire dinner the Essence of Selfishness was busy visiting from one friendly lap to another, frequently crossing the table to do so, and as she refuses to dine from a saucer, though it be of the finest porcelain of Rouen, she was fed piecemeal. It was easily seen Tanrade was envious of this charity from one shapely little hand.
What a contrast are these dinners in the lost village to some I have known elsewhere! What refreshing vivacity! How genuine and merry they are from the arrival of the first guest to the going of the last! When at last the coffee and liqueurs were reached and six thin spirals of blue smoke were curling lazily up among the rafters of the low ceiling, the small upright piano talked under Tanrade's vibrant touch. He sang heartily whatever came into his head; now a quaint peasant song, again the latest success of the cafe concert.
Alice de Breville, stretched out in the long chair before the fire, was listening intently.
And so with song and story the hands of the tall clock slipped by the hours. It was midnight before we knew it. Again Tanrade played—this time it was the second act of his new operetta. When he had finished he took his seat beside the woman in the long chair.
"Bravo!" she murmured in his ear. Then she listened as he talked to her earnestly.
"Good!" I overheard her say to him with conviction, her eyes gleaming. "And you are satisfied at last with the second act?"
"Yes, after a month's struggle with it."
"Ah, I am so glad—so glad!" she sighed, and pressed his hand.
"I must go to Paris next week for the rehearsals."
"For long?" she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "For weeks, perhaps. Come," he said, "let us go out to the wall—the moon is up. The marsh is so beautiful in the moonlight."
She rose, slipped on the dove-gray cloak he brought her, and together they disappeared in the courtyard. The marquise raised her eyes to mine and smiled.
"Bonne promenade, dear children," she called after them, but they did not hear.
An hour later Alice de Breville was speeding back to her chateau; Blondel and his mare were also clattering homeward, for he had still an article to finish before daylight. I had just bid the marquis and the marquise good night when Tanrade, who was about to follow, suddenly turned and called me aside in the shadow of the gateway. What he said to me made my heart leap. His eyes were shining with a strange light; his hands, gripping me by both shoulders, trembled.
"It is true," he repeated. "Don't tell me I am dreaming, old friend. Yes, it is true. Alice—yes, it is Alice. Come, a glass of wine! I feel faint—and happy!"
We went back to the dying fire, and I believe he heard all my congratulations, though I am not sure. He seemed in a dream.
When he had gone Suzette lighted my candle.
"Suzette," I said, "your dinner was a success."
"Ah, but I am content, monsieur. Mon Dieu, but I do love to cook!"
"Come, Miquette! It's past your bedtime, you adorable egoist."
Village of Vagabonds! In which the hours are never dull! Lost village by the Normand sea! In which lies a paradise of good-fellowship, romance, love, and sound red wine!
* * * * *
MONSIEUR LE CURE
The sun had just risen, and the bell of the little stone church chattered and jangled, flinging its impatient call over the sleeping village of Pont du Sable. In the clear morning air its voice could be heard to the tops of the green hills, and across the wide salt marsh that stretched its feathery fingers to the open sea.
A lone, wrinkled fisherman, rolling lazily on the mighty heave of the incoming tide, turned his head landward.
"Sapristi!" he grinned, as he slipped a slimy thumb from the meshes of a mackerel-net and crossed himself. "She has a hoarse throat, that little one."
Far up the hillside a mile back of the churchyard, a barelegged girl driving a cow stopped to listen, her hood pushed back, her brown hands crossed upon her breast.
Lower down, skirting the velvet edge of the marsh, filmy rifts of mist broke into shreds or blended with the spirals of blue smoke mounting skyward from freshly kindled fires.
Pont du Sable was awake for the day.
It is the most unimportant of little villages, yet it is four centuries old, and of stone. It seems to have shrivelled by its great age, like its oldest inhabitants. One-half of its two score of fishermen's houses lie crouched to the rambling edge of its single street; the other half might have been dropped at random, like stones from the pocket of some hurrying giant. Some of these, including the house of the ruddy little mayor and the polite, florid grocer, lie spilled along the edge of the marsh.
As for Monsieur le Cure, he was at this very moment in the small stone church saying mass to five fishermen, two devout housewives, a little child, an old woman in a white cap, and myself. Being in my shooting-boots, I had tiptoed into a back seat behind two of the fishermen, and sat in silence watching Monsieur le Cure's gaunt figure and listening to his deep, well-modulated, resonant voice.
What I saw was a man uncommonly tall and well built, dressed in a rusty black soutane that reached in straight lines from beneath his chin to his feet, which were encased in low calf shoes with steel buckles. I noticed, too, that his face was angular and humorous; his eyes keen and merry by turns; his hair of the colourless brown one sees among fisherfolk whose lives are spent in the sun and rain. I saw, too, that he was impecunious, for the front edges of his cassock were frayed and three buttons missing, not to be wondered at, I said to myself, as I remembered that the stone church, like the village it comforted, had always been poor.
Now and then during the mass I saw the cure glance at the small leaded window above him as if making a mental note of the swaying tree-tops without in the graveyard. Then his keen gray eyes again reverted to the page he knew by heart. The look evidently carried some significance, for the gray-haired old sea-dog in front of me cocked his blue eye to his partner—they were both in from a rough night's fishing—and muttered:
"It will be a short mass."
"Ben sur," whispered back the other from behind his leathery hand. "The wind's from the northeast. It will blow a gale before sundown." And he nodded toward the swaying tree-tops.
With this, the one with the blue eyes straightened back in the wooden pew and folded his short, knotty arms in attention; the muscles of his broad shoulders showing under his thick seaman's jersey, the collar encircling his corded, stocky neck deep-seamed by a thousand winds and seas. The gestures of these two old craftsmen of the sea, who had worked so long together, were strangely similar. When they knelt I could see the straw sticking from the heels of their four wooden sabots and the rolled-up bottoms of their patched sail-cloth trousers.
As the mass ended the old woman in the white cap coughed gently, the cure closed his book, stepped from the chancel, patted the child's head in passing, strode rapidly to the sacristy, and closed the door behind him.
I followed the handful of worshippers out into the sunlight and down the hill. As I passed the two old fishermen I heard the one with the blue eyes say to his mate with the leathery hand:
"Allons, viens t'en! What if we went to the cafe after that dog's night of a sea?"
"I don't say no," returned his partner; then he winked at me and pointed to the sky.
"I know," I said. "It's what I've been waiting for."
I kept on down the crooked hill to the public square where nothing ever happens save the arrival of the toy train and the yearly fete, and deciding the two old salts were right after their "dog's night" (and it had blown a gale), wheeled to the left and followed them to the tiniest of cafes kept by stout, cheery Madame Vinet. It has a box of a kitchen through which you pass into a little square room with just space enough for four tables; or you may go through the kitchen into a snug garden gay in geraniums and find a sheltered table beneath a rickety arbour.
"Ah, mais, it was bad enough!" grinned the one with the leathery hand as he drained his thimbleful of applejack and, Norman-like, tossed the last drop on the floor of the snug room.
"Bad enough! It was a sea, I tell you, monsieur, like none since the night the wreck of La Belle Marie came ashore," chimed in the one with the blue eye, as he placed his elbows on the clean marbletop table and made room for my chair. "Mon Dieu! You should have seen the ducks south of the Wolf. Aye, 'twas a sight for an empty stomach."
The one with the leathery hand nodded his confirmation sleepily.
"Helas!" continued the one with the blue eye. "If monsieur could only have been with us!" As he spoke he lifted his shaggy eyebrows in the direction of the church and laughed softly. "He's happy with his northeast wind; I knew 'twould be a short mass."
"A good catch?" I ventured, looking toward him as Madame Vinet brought my glass.
"Eight thousand mackerel, monsieur. We should have had ten thousand had not the wind shifted."
"Ben sur!" grumbled the one with the leathery hand.
At this Madame Vinet planted her fists on her ample hips. "Helas! There's the Mere Coraline's girl to be married Thursday," she sighed, "and Planchette's baby to be christened Tuesday, and the wind in the northeast, mon Dieu!" And she went back to her spotless kitchen for a sou's worth of black coffee for a little girl who had just entered.
Big, strong, hearty Madame Vinet! She has the frankness of a man and the tenderness of a mother. There is something of her youth still left at forty-six; not her figure—that is rotund simplicity itself—but in the clearness of her brown eyes and the finely cut profile before it reaches her double chin, and the dimples in her hands, well shaped even to-day.
And so the little girl who had come in for the sou's worth of coffee received an honest measure, smoking hot out of a dipper and into the bottle she had brought. In payment Madame Vinet kissed the child, and added a lump of sugar to the bargain. From where I sat I could see the tears start in the good woman's eyes. The next moment she came back to us laughing to disguise them.
"Ah, you good soul!" I thought to myself. "Always in a good humour; always pleasant. There you go again—this time it was the wife of a poor fisherman who could not pay. How many a poor devil of a half-frozen sailor you have warmed, you whose heart is so big and whose gains are so small!"
I rose at length, bade the two old salts good morning, and with a blessing of good luck, recovered my gun from the kitchen cupboard, where I had reverently left it during mass, and went on my way to shoot. I, too, was anxious to make the most of the northeast wind.
* * * * *
There being no street in the lost village save the main thoroughfare, one finds only alleys flanked by rambling walls. One of these runs up to Tanrade's house; another finds its zigzag way to the back gate of the marquis, who, being a royalist, insists upon telling you so, for the keystone of his gate is emblazoned with a bas-relief of two carved eagles guarding the family crest. Still another leads unexpectedly to the silent garden of Monsieur le Cure. It is a protecting little by-way whose walls tell no tales. How many a suffering heart seeking human sympathy and advice has the strong figure in the soutane sent home with fresh courage by way of this back lane. Indeed it would be a lost village without him. He is barely over forty years old, and yet no cure was ever given a poorer parish, for Pont du Sable has been bankrupt for generations. Since a fortnight—so I am told—Monsieur le Cure has had no bonne. The reason is that no good Suzette can be found to replace the one whom he married to a young farmer from Bonville. The result is the good cure dines many times a week with the marquis, where he is so entertaining and so altogether delightful and welcome a guest that the marquise tells me she feels ten years younger after he has gone.
"Poor man," she confided to me the other day, "what will you have? He has no bonne, and he detests cooking. Yesterday he lunched at the chateau with Alice de Breville; to-morrow he will be cheering up two old maiden aunts who live a league from Bar la Rose. Is it not sad?" And she laughed merrily.
"Monsieur le Cure has no bonne!" Parbleu! It has become a household phrase in Pont du Sable. It is so difficult to get a servant here; the girls are all fishing. As for Tanrade's maid-of-all-work, like the noiseless butler of the marquis and the femme de chambre of Alice de Breville, they are all from Paris; and yet I'll wager that no larder in the village is better stocked than Monsieur le Cure's, for every housewife vies with her neighbour in ready-cooked donations since the young man from Bonville was accepted.
But these good people do not forget. They remember the day when the farm of Pere Marin burned; they recall the figure in the black soutane stumbling on through flame and smoke carrying an unconscious little girl in his strong arms to safety. Four times he went back where no man dared go—and each time came out with a life.
Again, but for his indomitable grit, a half-drowned father and daughter, clinging to a capsized fishing-smack in a winter sea, would not be alive—there are even fisherfolk who cannot swim. Monsieur le Cure saw this at a glance, alone he fought his way in the freezing surf out to the girl and the man. He brought them in and they lived.
* * * * *
But there is a short cut to the marsh if you do but know it—one that has served me before. You can easily find it, for you have but to follow your nose along the wall of Madame Vinet's cafe, creep past the modest rose-garden of the mayor, zigzag for a hundred paces or more among crumbling walls, and before you know it you are out on the marsh.
* * * * *
The one with the blue eye was right.
The wind was from the northeast in earnest, and the tide racing in. Half a mile outward a dozen long puntlike scows, loaded to their brims with sand, were being borne on the swirling current up the river's channel, each guided at the stern by a ragged dot of a figure straining at an oar.
As I struck out across the desolate waste of mud, bound for the point of dry marsh, the figure steering the last scow, as he passed, waved a warning to me. With the incoming sweep of tide the sunlight faded, the bay became noisy with the cries of sea-fowl, and the lighthouse beyond the river's channel stood out against the ominous green sky like a stick of school-chalk.
I jerked my cap tighter over my ears, and lowering my head to the wind kept on. I had barely time to make the marsh. Over the black desolate waste of clay-mud the sea was spreading its hands—long, dangerous hands, with fingers that every moment shot out longer and nearer my tracks. The wind blew in howling gusts now, straight in from the open sea. Days like these the ducks have no alternative but the bay. Only a black diver can stand the strain outside. Tough old pirates these—diving to keep warm.
I kept on, foolish as it was. A flight of becassines were whirled past me, twittering in a panic as they fought their way out of sudden squalls. I turned to look back. Already my sunken tracks were obliterated under a glaze of water, but I felt I was safe, for I had gained harder ground. It was a relief to slide to the bottom of one of the labyrinth of causeways that drain the marsh, and plunge on sheltered from the wind.
Presently I heard ducks quacking ahead. I raised my head cautiously to the level of the wire-grass. A hundred rods beyond, nine black ducks were grouped near the edge of a circular pool; behind them, from where I stood, there rose from the level waste a humplike mound. I could no longer proceed along the bottom of the causeway, as it was being rapidly filled to within an inch below my boot-tops. The hump was my only salvation, so I crawled to the bank and started to stalk the nine black ducks.
It was difficult to keep on my feet on the slimy mud-bank, for the wind, true to the fishermen's prediction, was now blowing half a gale. Besides, this portion of the marsh was strange to me, as I had only seen it at a distance from the lower end of the bay, where I generally shot. I was within range of the ducks now, and had raised my hammers—I still shoot a hammer-gun—when a human voice rang out. Then, like some weird jack-in-the-box, there popped out from the mound a straight, long-waisted body in black waving its arms.
It was the cure!
"Stay where you are," he shouted. "Treacherous ground! I'll come and help you!" Then for a second he peered intently under his hand. "Ah! It is you, monsieur—the newcomer; I might have guessed it." He laughed, leaping out and striding toward me. "Ah, you Americans! You do not mind the weather."
"Bonjour, Monsieur le Cure," I shouted back in astonishment, trying to steady myself across a narrow bridge of mud spanning the causeway.
"Look out!" he cried. "That mud you're on is dangerous. She's sinking!"
It was too late; my right foot barely made another step before down I went, gun, shells, and all, up to my chin in ice-cold water. The next instant he had me by the collar of my leather coat in a grip of steel, and I was hauled out, dripping and draining, on the bank.
"I'm all right," I sputtered.
"Come inside instantly," he said.
"Inside? Inside where?" I asked.
He pointed to the hump.
"You must get your wet things off and into bed at once." This came as a command.
"Bed! Where? Whose bed?" Was he an Aladdin with a magic lamp, that could summon comfort in that desolation? "Monsieur," I choked, "I owe you a thousand apologies. I came near killing one of your nine decoys. I mistook them for wild mallards."
He laughed softly. "They are not mine," he explained. "They belong to the marquis; it is his gardener who pickets them out for me. I could not afford to keep them myself. They eat outrageously, those nine deceivers. They are well placed to-day; just the right distance." And he called the three nearest us by name, for they were quacking loudly. "Be still, Fannine! There, Pierrot! If your cord and swivel does not work, my good drake, I'll fix it for you, but don't make such a fuss; you'll have noise enough to make later." And gripping me by the arm, he pushed me firmly ahead of him to a small open door in the mound. I peered into the darkness within.
"Get in," said he. "It's small, but it's warm and comfortable inside. After you, my friend," he added graciously, and we descended into a narrow ditch, its end blocked by a small, safe-like door leading into a subterranean hut, its roof being the mound, shelving out to a semicircular, overhanging eyebrow skirting the edge of the circular pool some ten yards back of the line of live decoys.
"Ah!" exclaimed Monsieur le Cure, "you should have seen the duck-blind I had three years ago. This gabion of mine is smaller, but it is in better line with the flights," he explained as he opened the door. "Look out for the steps—there are two."
I now stood shivering in the gloom of a box-like, underground anteroom, provided with a grated floor and a low ribbed ceiling; beyond this, through another small door, was an adjoining compartment deeper than the one in which we stood, and in the darkness I caught the outline of a cot-bed, a carved, high-backed, leather-seated chair, and the blue glint of guns lying in their racks. The place was warm and smelled, like the cabin of some fishing-sloop, of sea-salt and tar.
It did not take me long to get out of my clothes. When the last of them lay around my heels I received a rubbing down with a coarse sailor's shirt, that sent the blood back where it belonged.
"Allons! Into bed at once!" insisted the cure. "You'll find those army blankets dry."
I felt my way in while he struck a match and lighted a candle upon a narrow shelf strewn with empty cartridges. The candle sputtered, sunk to a blue flame, and flared up cheerfully, while the cure poured me out a stiff glass of brandy, and I lay warm in the blankets of the Armee Francaise, and gazed about me at my strange quarters.
Back of my pillow was, tightly closed, in three sections, a narrow firing-slit. Beside the bed the candle's glow played over the carved back of the leather-seated chair. Above the closed slit ran a shelf, and ranged upon it were some fifty cartridges and an old-fashioned fat opera-glass. This, then, was Monsieur le Cure's duck-blind, or rather, in French, his gabion.
The live decoys began quacking nervously. The cure, about to speak, tip-toed over to the firing-slit and let down cautiously one of its compartments.
"A flight of plovers passing over us," he remarked. "Yes, there they go. If the wind will only hold you shall see—there will be ducks in," his gray eyes beaming at the thought.
Then he drew the chair away from the firing-slit and seated himself, facing me.
"If you knew," he began, "how much it means to me to talk to one of the outside world—your country—America! You must tell me much about it. I have always longed to see it, but——" He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "Are you warm?" he asked.
"Warm?" I laughed. "I never felt better in my life." And I thanked him again for his kindness to a stranger in distress. "A stranger in luck," I added.
"I saw you at mass this morning," he returned bending over, his hands on his knees. "But you are not a Catholic, my friend? You are always welcome to my church, however, remember that."
"Thank you," I said. "I like your little church, and—I like you, Monsieur le Cure."
He put forth his hand. "Brother sportsmen," he said. "It is a brotherhood, isn't it? You are a Protestant, is it not so?" And his voice sank to a gentle tone.
"Yes, I am what they call a blue Presbyterian."
"I have heard of that," he said. "'A blue Presbyterian.'" He repeated it to himself and smiled. Suddenly he straightened and his finger went to his lips.
"Hark!" he whispered. "Hear their wings!"
Instantly the decoys set up a strenuous quacking. Then again all was silent.
"Too high," muttered the cure. "I do not expect much in before the late afternoon. Do you smoke?"
"Yes, gladly," I replied, "but my cigarettes are done for, I am afraid; they were in the pocket of my hunting coat."
"Don't move," he said, noticing my effort to rise. "I've got cigarettes." And he fumbled in the shadow of the narrow shelf.
I had hardly lighted my own over the candle-flame, which he held for me, when I felt a gentle rocking and heard the shells rattle as they rolled to the end of the shelf, stop, and roll back again.
"Do not be alarmed," he laughed, "it's only the water filling the outer jacket of my gabion. We shall be settled and steady in a moment, and afloat for the night."
"The night!" I exclaimed in amazement. "But, my good friend, I have no intention of wearing out my welcome; I had planned to get home for luncheon."
"Impossible!" he replied. "We are now completely surrounded by water. It is always so at high tide at this end of the bay. Come, see for yourself. Besides, you don't know how glad I am that we can have the chance to shoot together. I've been waiting weeks for this wind."
He blew out the candle, and again opened the firing-slit. As far as one could see the distant sea was one vast sweep of roaring water.
"You see," he said, closing the firing-slit and striking a match—"you must stay. I have plenty of dry clothes for you in the locker, and we shall not go hungry." He drew out a basket from beneath the cot and took from it a roasted chicken, two litres of red wine, and some bread and cheese, which he laid on the shelf. "A present," he remarked, "from one of my parishioners. You know, I have no bonne."
"I have heard so," said I.
He laughed softly. "One hears everything in the village. Ah! But what good children they are! They even forgive my love of shooting!" He crossed his strong arms in the rusty black sleeves of his cassock, and for some moments looked at me seriously. "You think it strange, no doubt, irreverent, for a cure to shoot," he continued. "Forgive me if I have shocked the ideas of your faith."
"Nonsense!" I returned, raising my hand in protest. "You are only human, an honest sportsman. We understand each other perfectly."
"Thank you," he returned, with sincerity. "I was afraid you might not understand—you are the first American I have ever met."
He began taking out an outfit of sailor's clothes from the locker—warm things—which I proceeded to get into with satisfaction. I had just poked my head through the rough jersey and buckled my belt when our decoys again gave warning.
Out went the candle.
"Mallards!" whispered the cure. "Here, take this gun, quick! It is the marquis's favourite," he added in a whisper.
He reached for another breech-loader, motioned me to the chair, let down the three compartments of the firing-slit, and stretched himself out full length on the cot, his keen eyes scanning the bay at a glance.
We were just in time—a dozen mallards were coming straight for our decoys.
Bang! thundered the cure's gun.
Bang! Bang! echoed my own. Then another roar from the cure's left barrel. When the smoke cleared three fat ducks were kicking beyond our deceivers.
"Take him!" he cried, as a straggler—a drake—shot past us. I snapped in a shell and missed, but the cure was surer. Down came the straggler, a dead duck at sixty yards.
"Bravo, Monsieur le Cure!" I cried.
But he only smiled modestly and, extracting the empty shell, blew the lurking smoke free from the barrels. It was noon when we turned to half the chicken and a bottle of vin ordinaire with an appetite.
The northeast wind had now shifted to the south; the bay became like glass, and so the afternoon passed until the blood-red sun, like some huge ribbed lantern of the Japanese, slowly sank into the sea. It grew dusk over the desolate marsh. Stray flights of plovers, now that the tide was again on its ebb, began to choose their resting places for the night.
"I'm going out to take a look," said the cure. Again, like some gopher of the prairie, he rose up out of his burrow.
Presently he returned, the old enthusiastic gleam in his eyes.
"The wind's changing," he announced. "It will be in the north again to-night; we shall have a full moon and better luck, I hope. Do you know," he went on excitedly, "that one night last October I killed forty-two ducks alone in this old gabion. Forty-two! Twenty mallards and the rest Vignon—and not a shot before one o'clock in the morning. Then they came in, right and left. I believe my faithful decoys will remember that night until their dying day. Ah, it was glorious! Glorious!" His tanned, weather-beaten features wrinkled with delight; he had the skin of a sailor, and I wondered how often the marsh had hid him. "Ah, my friend," he said, with a sigh, as we sat down to the remainder of the chicken and vin ordinaire for supper, this time including the cheese, "it is not easy for a cure to shoot. My good children of the village do not mind, but——" He hesitated, running his long, vibrant fingers through his hair.
"What then? Tell me," I ventured. "It will go no further, I promise you."
"Rome!" he whispered. "I have already received a letter, a gentle warning from the palace; but I have a good friend in Cardinal Z. He understands."
During the whole of that cold moonlight we took turns of two hours each; one sleeping while the other watched in the chair drawn up close to the firing-slit.
What a night!
The marsh seen through the firing-slit, with its overhanging eyebrow of sod, seemed not of this earth. The nine black decoys picketed before us straining at their cords, gossiping, dozing for a moment, preening their wings or rising up for a vigorous stretch, appeared by some curious optical illusion four times their natural size; now they seemed to be black dogs, again a group of sombre, misshapen gnomes.
While I watched, the cure slept soundly, his body shrouded in the blankets like some carved Gothic saint of old. The silence was intense—a silence that could be heard—broken only by the brisk ticking of the cure's watch on the narrow shelf. Occasionally a water-rat would patter over the sunken roof, become inquisitive, and peer in at me through the slit within half a foot of my nose. Once in a while I took down the fat opera-glass, focussing it upon the dim shapes that resembled ducks, but that proved to be bits of floating seaweed or a scurrying shadow as a cloud swept under the moon—all illusions, until my second watch, when, with a rush, seven mallards tumbled among our decoys. Instantly the cure awakened, sprang from his cot, and with sharp work we killed four.
"Stay where you are," he said as he laid his gun back in its rack. "I'll get into my hip-boots and get them before the water-rats steal what we've earned. They are skilled enough to get a decoy now and then. The marsh is alive with them at night."
Morning paled. The village lay half hidden behind the rifts of mist. Then dawn and the rising sun, the water like molten gold, the black decoys churning at their pickets sending up swirls of turquoise in the gold.
Suddenly the cracked bell rang out from the distant village. At that moment two long V-shaped strings of mallards came winging toward us from the north. I saw the cure glance at them. Then he held out his hand to me.
"You take them—I cannot," he said hurriedly. "I haven't a moment to lose—it is the bell for mass. Here's the key. Lock up when you leave."
"Dine with me to-night," I insisted, one eye still on the incoming ducks. "You have no bonne."
His hand was on the gabion door. "And if the northeast wind holds," he called back, "shall we shoot again to-night?"
"Yes, to-night!" I insisted.
"Then I'll come to dinner." And the door closed with a click.
Through the firing-slit I could see him leaping across the marsh toward the gray church with the cracked bell, and as he disappeared by the short cut I pulled the trigger of both barrels—and missed.
An hour later Suzette greeted me with eyes full of tears and anxiety.
"Ah! Mother of Pity! Monsieur is safe!" she cried. "Where has monsieur been, mon Dieu!"
"To mass, my child," I said gravely, filling her plump arms with the ducks. "Monsieur le Cure is coming to dinner!"
* * * * *
THE EXQUISITE MADAME DE BREVILLE
Poor Tanrade! Just as I felt the future was all couleur de rose with him it has changed to gloom unutterable.
Ah, les femmes! I should never dare fall in love with a woman as exquisite as Alice de Breville. She is too beautiful, too seductive, with her olive skin, her frank smile, and her adorable head poised upon a body much too well made. She is too tender, too complex, too intelligent. She has a way of mischievously caressing you with her eyes one moment and giving an old comrade like myself a platonic little pat on the back the next, which is exasperating. As a friend I adore her, but to fall in love with her! Ah, non, merci! I have had a checkered childhood and my full share of suffering; I wish some peace in my old age. At sixteen one goes to the war of love blindly, but at forty it is different. Our chagrins then plunge us into a state of dignified desolation.
Poor Tanrade! I learned of the catastrophe the other night when he solemnly entered my abandoned house by the marsh and sank his big frame in the armchair before my fire. He was no longer the genial bohemian of a Tanrade I had known. He was silent and haggard. He had not slept much for a week; neither had he worked at the score of his new opera or hunted, but he had smoked incessantly, furiously—a dangerous remedy with which to mend a broken heart.
My poor old friend! I was so certain of his happiness that night after dinner here in the House Abandoned, when he and Alice had lost themselves in the moonlight. Was it the moonlight? Or the kiss she gave him as they stood looking out over the lichen-stained wall of the courtyard to the fairy marsh beyond, still and sublime—wedded to the open sea at high tide—like a mirror of polished silver, its surface ruffled now and then by the splash of some incoming duck. He had poured out his heart to her then, and again over their liqueur and cigarettes at that fatal dinner of two at the chateau.
All this he confessed to me as he sat staring into the cheery blaze on my hearth. Under my friendly but somewhat judicial cross-examination that ensued, it was evident that not a word had escaped Alice's lips that any one but that big optimistic child of a Tanrade could have construed as her promise to be his wife. He confided her words to me reluctantly, now that he realized how little she had meant.
"Come," said I, in an effort to cheer him, "have courage! A woman's heart that is won easily is not worth fighting for. You shall see, old fellow—things will be better."
But he only shook his head, shrugged his great shoulders, and puffed doggedly at his pipe in silence. My tall clock in the corner ticked the louder, its brass pendulum glinting as it swung to and fro in the light of the slumbering fire. I threw on a fresh log, kicked it into a blaze, and poured out for him a stiff glass of applejack. I had faith in that applejack, for it had been born in the moonlit courtyard years ago. It roused him, for I saw something of his old-time self brighten within him; he even made an attempt at a careless smile—the reminiscent smile of a philosopher this time.
"What if I went to see her?" I remarked pointblank.
"You! Mon Dieu!" He half sprang out of the armchair in his intensity. "Are you crazy?"
"Forgive me," I apologized. "I did not mean to hurt you. I only thought—and you are in no condition to reason—that Alice may have changed her mind, may regret having refused you. Women change their minds, you know. She might even confess this to me since there is nothing between us and we are old friends."
"No, no," he protested. "You are not to speak of me to Madame de Breville—do you understand?" he cried, his voice rising. "You are not to mention my name, promise me that."
This time it was I who shrugged my shoulders in reply. He sat gripping the arms of his chair, again his gaze reverted stolidly to the fire. The clock ticked on past midnight, peacefully aloof as if content to be well out of the controversy.
"A drop more?" I ventured, reaching for the decanter; but he stayed my arm.
"I've been a fool," he said slowly. "Ah! Mon Dieu! Les femmes! Les femmes! Les femmes!" he roared. "Very well," he exclaimed hotly, "it is well finished. To-morrow I must go to Paris for the new rehearsals. I have begged off for a week. Duclos is beside himself with anxiety—two telegrams to-day, the last one imperative. The new piece must open at the Folies Parisiennes the eighth."
I saw him out to the gate and there was a brave ring in his "bonsoir, mon vieux," as he swung off in the dusk of the starlit road.
He left the village the next day at noon by the toy train, "the little get off-the-track," as we call it. Perhaps he wished it would and end everything, including the rehearsals.
Bah! To be rehearsing lovelorn shepherds and shepherdesses in sylvan dells. To call a halt eighteen times in the middle of the romantic duet between the unhappy innkeeper's daughter and the prince. To marry them all smoothly in B flat in the finale, and keep the brass down and the strings up in the apotheosis when the heart of the man behind the baton has been cured of all love and illusion—for did he not tell me "It is well finished"? Poor Tanrade!
Though it is but half a fortnight since he left, it seems years since he used to come into my courtyard, for he came and went as freely at all hours as the salt breeze from the marsh. Often he would wake me at daybreak, bellowing up to my window at the top of his barytone lungs some stirring aria, ending with: "Eh, mon vieux! Stop playing the prince! Get up out of that and come out on the marsh. There are ducks off the point. Where's Suzette? Where's the coffee? Sacristi! What a house. Half-past four and nobody awake!"
And he would stand there grinning; his big chest encased in a fisherman's jersey, a disreputable felt hat jammed on his head, and his feet in a pair of sabots that clattered like a farm-horse as he went foraging in the kitchen, upsetting the empty milk-tins and making such a bedlam that my good little maid-of-all-work, Suzette, would hurry in terror into her clothes and out to her beloved kitchen to save the rest from ruin.
Needless to say, nothing ever happened to anything. He could make more noise and do less harm than any one I ever knew. Then he would sing us both into good humour until Suzette's peasant cheeks shone like ripe apples.
"It is not the same without Monsieur Tanrade," Suzette sighed to-day as she brought my luncheon to my easel in a shady corner of my wild garden—a corner all cool roses and shadow.
"Ah, no!" I confessed as I squeezed out the last of a tube of vermilion on the edge of my palette.
"Ah, no!" she sighed softly, and wiped her eyes briskly with the back of her dimpled red hand. "Ah, no! Parbleu!"
And just then the bell over my gate jingled. "Some one rings," whispered Suzette and she ran to open the gate. It was the valet de chambre from the chateau with a note from Alice, which read:
DEAR FRIEND: It is lonely, this big house of mine. Do come and dine with me at eight. Hastily, A. de B.
Added to this was the beginning of a postscript crossed out.
Upon a leaf torn from my sketchbook I scribbled the answer:
GOOD DEAR CHARITABLE FRIEND: The House Abandoned is a hollow mockery without Tanrade. I'll come gladly at eight.
And Suzette brought it out to the waiting valet de chambre whom she addressed respectfully as "monsieur," half on account of his yellow-striped waistcoat and half because he was a Parisian.
Bravo, Alice! Here then was the opportunity I had been waiting for, and I hugged myself over the fact. It was like the first ray of sunshine breaking through a week of leaden sky. For a long time I paced back and forth among the paths of the snug garden, past the roses and the heliotrope down as far as the flaming geraniums and the hollyhocks and the droning bees, and back again by way of some excellent salads and the bed of artichokes, while I turned over in my mind and rehearsed to myself all I intended to say to her.
Alice lonely! With a chateau, two automobiles, and all Paris at her pretty feet! Ha! ha! The symptoms were excellent. The patient was doing well. To-night would see her convalescent and happily on the road to recovery. This once happy family of comrades should be no longer under the strain of disunion, we should have another dinner soon and the House Abandoned would ring with cheer as it had never rung before. Japanese lanterns among the fruit-trees of the tangled garden, the courtyard full of villagers, red and blue fire, skyrockets and congratulations, a Normand dinner and a keg of good sound wine to wish a long and happy life to both. There would be the same Tanrade again and the same Alice, and they would be married by the cure in the little gray church with the cracked bell, with the marquis and the marquise as notables in the front pew. In my enthusiasm I saw it all.
* * * * *
The lane back of the House Abandoned shortens the way to the chateau by half a kilometre. It was this lane that I entered at dusk by crawling under the bars that divided it from the back pasture full of gnarled apple-trees, under which half a dozen mild-eyed cows had settled themselves for the night. They rose when they caught sight of me and came toward me blowing deep moist breaths as a quiet challenge to the intruder, until halted by the bars they stood in a curious group watching me until I disappeared up the lane, a lane screened from the successive pastures on either side by an impenetrable hedge and flanked its entire length by tall trees, their tops meeting overhead like the Gothic arches of a cathedral aisle. This roof of green made the lane at this hour so dark that I had to look sharp to avoid the muddy places, for the lane ascended like the bed of a brook until it reached the plateau of woodlands and green fields above, commanding a sweeping view of marsh and sea below.
Birds fluttered nervously in the hedges, frightened at my approaching footsteps. A hare sniffing in the middle of the path flattened his long ears and sprang into the thicket ahead. The nightingales in the forest above began calling to one another. Two doves went skimming out of the leaves over my head. Even a peacemaker may be mistaken for an enemy. And now I had gained the plateau and it grew lighter—that gentle light with which night favours the open places.
There are two crossroads at the top of the lane. The left one leads to the hamlet of Beaufort le Petit, a sunken cluster of farms ten good leagues from Pont du Sable; the right one swings off into the highroad half a mile beyond, which in turn is met by the private way of the chateau skirting the stone wall surrounding the park, which, as early as 1608, served as the idle stronghold of the Duc de Rambutin. It has seen much since then and has stood its ground bravely under the stress of misfortune. The Prussians hammered off two of its towers, and an artillery fire once mowed down some of its oldest trees and wrecked the frescoed ceiling and walls of the salon, setting fire to the south wing, which was never rebuilt and whose jagged and blackened walls the roses and vines have long since lovingly hidden from view.
Alice bought this once splendid feudal estate literally for a song—the song in the second act of Fremier's comedy, which had a long run at the Varietes three years ago, and in which she earned an enviable success and some beautiful bank-notes. Were the Duc de Rambutin alive I am sure he would have presented it to her—shooting forest, stone wall, and all. They say he had an intolerable temper, but was kind to ladies and lap-dogs.
It was not long before I unlatched a moss-covered gate with one hinge lost in the weeds—a little woebegone gate for intimate friends, that croaked like a night-bird when it opened, and closed with a whine. Beyond it lay a narrow path through a rose-garden leading to the chateau. This rose-garden is the only cultivated patch within the confines of the wall, for on either side of it tower great trees, their aged trunks held fast in gnarled thickets of neglected vines. It is only another "house abandoned," this chateau of Alice's, save that its bygone splendour asserts itself through the scars, and my own by the marsh never knew luxury even in its best days.
"Madame is dressing," announced that most faithful of old servitors, Henri, who before Alice conferred a full-fledged butlership upon him in his old age was since his youth a stage-carpenter at the Theatre Francais.
"Will monsieur have the goodness to wait for madame in the library?" added Henri, as he relieved me of my hat and stick, deposited them noiselessly upon an oak table, and led me to a portiere of worn Gobelin which he lifted for me with a bow of the Second Empire.
What a rich old room it is, this silent library of the choleric duke, with its walls panelled in worm-eaten oak reflecting the firelight and its rows of volumes too close to the grave to be handled. Here and there above the high wainscoting are ancestral portraits, some of them as black as a favourite pipe. Above the great stone chimney-piece is a full-length figure of the duke in a hunting costume of green velvet. The candelabra that Henri had just lighted on the long centre-table, littered with silver souvenirs and the latest Parisian comedies, now illumined the duke's smile, which he must have held with bad grace during the sittings. The rest of him was lost in the shadow above the chimney-piece of sculptured cherubs, whose missing noses have been badly restored in cement by the gardener.
I had settled myself in a chintz-covered chair and was idly turning the pages of one of the latest of the Parisian comedies when I heard the swish of a gown and the patter of two small slippered feet hurrying across the hall. I rose to regard my hostess with a feeling of tender curiosity mingled with resentment over her treatment of my old friend, when the portiere was lifted and Alice came toward me with both white arms outstretched in welcome. She was so pale in her dinner gown of black tulle that all the blood seemed to have taken refuge in her lips—so pale that the single camellia thrust in her corsage was less waxen in its whiteness than her neck.
I caught her hands and she stood close to me, smiling bravely, the tips of her fingers trembling in my own.
"You are ill!" I exclaimed, now thoroughly alarmed. "You must go straight to bed."
"No, no," she replied, with an effort. "Only tired, very tired."
"You should not have let me come," I protested.
She smiled and smoothed back a wave of her glossy black hair and I saw the old mischievous gleam flash in her dark eyes.
"Come," she whispered, leading me to the door of the dining room. "It is a secret," she confided, with a forced little laugh. "Look!" And she pinched my arm.
I glanced within—the table with its lace and silver under the glow of the red candle-shades was laid for two.
"It was nice of you," I said.
"We shall dine alone, you and I," she murmured. "I am so tired of company."
I was on the point of impulsively mentioning poor Tanrade's absence, but the subtle look in her eyes checked me. During dinner we should have our serious little talk, I said to myself as we returned to the library table.
"It's so amusing, that little comedy of Flandrean's," laughed Alice, picking up the volume I had been scanning. "The second act is a jewel with its delicious situation in which Francois Villers, the husband, and Therese, his wife, divorce in order to carry out between them a secret love-affair—a series of mysterious rendezvous that terminate in an amusing elopement. Tres chic, Flandrean's comedy. It should have a succes fou at the Palais Royal."
"Madame is served," gravely announced Henri.
Not once during dinner was Alice serious. Over the soup—an excellent bisque of ecrevisses—she bubbled over with the latest Parisian gossip, the new play at the Odeon, the fashion in hats. With the fish she prattled on over the limitations of the new directoire gowns and the scandal involving a certain tenor and a duchess. Tanrade's defence, which I had so carefully thought out and rehearsed in my garden, seemed doomed to remain unheard, for her cleverness in evading the subject, her sudden change to the merriest of moods, and her quick wit left me helpless. Neither did I make any better progress during the pheasant and the salad, and as she sipped but twice the Pommard and scarcely moistened her lips with the champagne my case seemed hopeless. Henri finally left us alone over our coffee and cigarettes. I had become desperate.
"Alice," I said bluntly, "we are old friends. I have some things to say to you of—of the utmost importance. You will listen, my friend, will you not, until I am quite through, for I shall not mention it again?"
She leaned forward with a little start and gazed at me suddenly, with dilated eyes—eyes that were the next minute lowered in painful submission, the corners of her mouth contracting nervously.
"Mon Dieu!" she murmured, looking up. "Mon Dieu! But you are cruel!"
"No," I replied calmly. "It is you who are cruel."
"No, no, you shall not!" she exclaimed, raising both ringless hands in protest, her breath coming quick. "I—I know what you are going to say. No, my dear friend—I beg of you—we are good comrades. Is it not so? Let us remain so."
"Listen," I implored.
"Ah, you men with your idea of marriage!" she continued. "The wedding, the aunts, the cousins, who come staring at you for a day and giving you advice for years. A solemn apartment near the Etoile—madame with her afternoons—monsieur with his club, his maitresse, his gambling and his debts—the children with their English governess. A villa by the sea, tennis, infants and sand-forts. The annual stupid voyage en Suisse. The inane slavery of it all. You who are a bohemian, you who live—with all your freedom—all my freedom! Non, merci! I have seen all that! Bah! You are as crazy as Tanrade."
"Alice," I cried, "you think——"
"Precisely, my friend."
She rose swiftly, crossed the room, and before I knew it slipped back of my chair, put both arms about my neck, kissed me, and burst into tears.
"There, there, mon pauvre petit," she whispered. "Forgive me—I was angry—we are not so stupid as all that—eh? We are not like the stupid bourgeoisie."
"But it is not I——" I stammered.
She caught her breath in surprise, straightened, and slowly retraced her steps to her vacant chair.
"Ah! So it is that?" she said slowly, drawing her chair close to my own. Then she seated herself, rested her chin in her hands, and regarded me for some moments intently.
"So you have come for—for him?" she resumed, her breast heaving. "I am right, am I not?"
"He loves you," I declared. "Do you think I am blind as to your love for him? You who came to greet me to-night out of your suffering?"
For some moments she was silent, her fingers pressed over her eyes.
"Do you love him?" I insisted.
"No, no," she moaned. "It is impossible."
"Do you know," I continued, "that he has not slept or hunted or smoked for a week before he was forced to go to Paris? Can you realize what he suffers now during days of exhausting rehearsals? He came to me a wreck," I said. "You have been cruel and you have——"
Again she had become deathly pale. Then at length she rose slowly, lifted her head proudly, and led the way back to the library fire.
"You must go," she said. "It is late."
* * * * *
When the little boy of the fisherman, Jean Tranchard, was not to be found playing with the other barelegged tots in the mud of the village alleys, or wandering alone on the marsh, often dangerously near the sweep of the incoming tide, one could be quite sure he was safe with Tanrade. Frequently, too, when the maker of ballets was locked in his domain and his servant had strict orders to admit no one—neither Monsieur le Cure nor the mayor, nor so intimate a comrade as myself—during such hours as these the little boy was generally beside the composer, his chubby toes scarcely reaching to the rungs of the chair beside Tanrade's working desk.
Though the little boy was barely seven he was a sturdy little chap with fair curly hair, blue eyes, and the quick gestures of his father. He had a way of throwing out his chest when he was pleased, and gesticulating with open arms and closed fists when excited, which is peculiar to the race of fishermen. The only time when he was perfectly still was when Tanrade worked in silence. He would then often sit beside him for hours waiting until the composer dropped his pen, swung round in his chair to the keyboard at his elbow, and while the piano rang with melody the little boy's eyes danced. He forgot during such moments of ecstasy that his father was either out at sea with his nets or back in the village good-naturedly drunk, or that his mother, whom he vaguely remembered, was dead.
Tanrade was a so much better father to him than his own that the rest of his wretched little existence did not count. When the father was fishing, the little boy cared for himself. He knew how to heat the pot and make the soup when there was any to make. He knew where to dig for clams and sputtering crabs. It was the bread that bothered him most—it cost two sous. It was Tanrade who discovered and softened these hard details.
The house in which the fisherman and the little boy live is tucked away in an angle of the walled lane leading out to the marsh. This stone house of Tranchard's takes up as little room as possible, since its front dare not encroach upon the lane and its back is hunched up apologetically against the angle of the wall. The house has but two compartments—the loft above stored with old nets and broken oars, and the living room beneath, whose dirt floor dampens the feet of an oak cupboard, a greasy table, a chair with a broken leg, and a mahogany bed. Over the soot-blackened chimney-piece is a painted figure of the Virgin, and a frigate in a bottle.
Monsieur le Cure had been watching all night beside the mahogany bed. Now and then he slipped his hand in the breast of his soutane of rusty black, drew out a steel watch, felt under a patchwork-quilt for a small feverish wrist, counted its feeble pulse, and filling a pewter spoon with a mixture of aconite, awakened the little boy who gazed at him with hollow eyes sunken above cheeks of dull crimson.
In the corner, his back propped against the cupboard, his bare feet tucked under him, dozed Tranchard. There was not much else he could do, for he was soaked to the skin and half drunk. Occasionally he shifted his feet, awakened, and dimly remembered the little boy was worse; that this news had been hailed to him by the skipper of the mackerel smack, La Belle Elise, and that he had hauled in his empty nets and come home.
As the gray light of dawn crept into the room, the little boy again grew restless. He opened the hollow eyes and saw dimly the black figure of the cure.
"Tanne," he whimpered. "Where is he, Tanne?"
"Monsieur Tanrade will come," returned the cure, "if you go to sleep like a brave little man."
"Tanne," repeated the child and closed his eyes obediently.
A cock crowed in a distant yard, awakening a sleek cat who emerged from beneath the bed, yawned, stretched her claws, and walked out of the narrow doorway into the misty lane.
The cure rose stiffly, went over to the figure in the corner and shook it. Tranchard started up out of a sound sleep.
"Tell madame when she arrives that I have gone for Doctor Thevenet. I shall return before night."
"I won't forget," grumbled Tranchard.
"I have left instructions for madame beside the candle. See that you keep the kettle boiling for the poultices."
The fisherman nodded. "Eh ben! How is it with the kid?" he inquired. "He does not take after his mother. Parbleu! She was as strong as a horse, my woman."
Monsieur le Cure did not reply. He had taken down his flat black hat from a peg and was carefully adjusting his square black cravat edged with white beneath his chin, when Alice de Breville entered the doorway.
"How is his temperature?" she asked eagerly, unpinning a filmy green veil and throwing aside a gray automobile coat.
Monsieur le Cure graciously uncovered his head. "There has been no change since you left at midnight," he said gravely. "The fever is still high, the pulse weaker. I am going for Doctor Thevenet after mass. There is a train at eight."
Tranchard was now on his knees fanning a pile of fagots into a blaze, the acrid smoke drifting back into the low-ceiled room.
"I will attend to it," said Alice, turning to the fisherman. "Tell my chauffeur to wait at the church for Monsieur le Cure. The auto is at the end of the lane."
For some minutes after the clatter of Tranchard's sabots had died away in the lane, Alice de Breville and Monsieur le Cure stood in earnest conversation beside the table.
"It may save the child's life," pleaded the priest. There was a ring of insistence in his voice, a gleam in his eyes that made the woman beside him tremble.
"You do not understand," she exclaimed, her breast heaving. "You do not realize what you ask of me. I cannot."
"You must," he insisted. "He might not understand it coming from me. You and he are old friends. You must, I tell you. Were he only here the child would be happy, the fever would be broken. It must be broken and quickly. Thevenet will tell you that when he comes."
Alice raised her hands to her temples.
"Will you?" he pleaded.
"Yes," she replied half audibly.
Monsieur le Cure gave a sigh of relief.
"God be with you!" said he.
He watched her as she wrote in haste the following telegram in pencil upon the back of a crumpled envelope:
MONSIEUR TANRADE, Theatre des Folies Parisiennes, Paris.
Tranchard's child very ill. Come at once.
A. de Breville.
This she handed to the priest in silence. Monsieur le Cure tucked it safely in the breast of his cassock. "God be with you!" he repeated and turned out into the lane. He ran, for the cracked bell for mass had ceased ringing.
The woman stood still by the table as if in a dream, then she staggered to the door, closed it, and throwing herself on her knees by the bedside of the sleeping boy, buried her face in her hands.
The child stirred, awakened by her sobbing.
"Tanne," he cried feebly.
"He will come," she said.
Outside in the mist-soaked lane three toothless fisherwomen gossiped in whispers.
Almost any day that you pass through the village you will see a chubby little rascal who greets you with a cheery "Bonjour" and runs away, dragging a tin horse with a broken tail. Should you chance to glance over my wall you will discover the tattered remnants of two Japanese lanterns hanging among the fruit-trees. They are all that remain of a fete save the memory of two friends to whom the whole world now seems couleur de rose.
* * * * *
"Hi, there! wake up! Where's Suzette? Where's the coffee! Daylight and not a soul up! Mon Dieu, what a house! Hurry up, Mon vieux! Alice is waiting!"
* * * * *
Some centuries ago the windows of my house abandoned on the marsh looked out upon a bay gay with the ships of Spanish pirates, for in those days Pont du Sable served them as a secret refuge for repairs. Hauled up to the tawny marsh were strange craft with sails of apple-green, rose, vermilion and sinister black; there were high sterns pierced by carved cabin-windows—some of them iron-barred, to imprison ladies of high or low degree and unfortunate gentlemen who fought bravely to defend them. From oaken gunwales glistened slim cannon, their throats swabbed clean after some wholesale murder on the open seas. Yes, it must have been a lively enough bay some centuries ago!
To-day Pont du Sable goes to bed without even turning the key in the lock. This is because of a vast army of simple men whose word, in France, is law.
To begin with, there are the President of the Republique and the Ministers of War and Agriculture, and Monsieur the Chief of Police—a kind little man in Paris whom it is better to agree with—and the prefet and the sous-prefet—all the way down the line of authority to the red-faced, blustering chef de gare at Pont du Sable—and Pierre.
On off-duty days Pierre is my gardener at eleven sous an hour. On these occasions he wears voluminous working trousers of faded green corduroy gathered at the ankles; a gray flannel shirt and a scarlet cravat. On other days his short, wiry body is encased in a carefully brushed uniform of dark blue with a double row of gold buttons gleaming down his solid chest. When on active duty in the Customs Coast Patrol of the Republique Francaise at Pont du Sable, he carries a neatly folded cape with a hood, a bayonet, a heavy calibred six-shooter and a trusty field-glass, useful in locating suspicious-looking objects on marsh or sea.
On this particular morning Pierre was late! I had been leaning over the lichen-stained wall of my wild garden waiting to catch sight of him as he left the ragged end of the straggling village. Had I mistaken the day? Impossible! It was Thursday and I knew he was free. Finally I caught sight of him hurrying toward me down the road—not in his working clothes of faded green corduroy, but in the full majesty of his law-enforcing uniform. What had happened? I wondered. Had his stern brigadier refused to give him leave?
"Bonjour, Pierre!" I called to him as he came within hailing distance.
He touched the vizor of his cap in military salute, and a moment later entered my garden.
"A thousand pardons, monsieur," he apologized excitedly, labouring to catch his breath.
"My artichokes have been waiting for you," I laughed; "they are nearly strangled with weeds. I expected you yesterday." He followed me through a lane of yellow roses leading to the artichoke bed. "What has kept you, Pierre?"
He stopped, looked me squarely in the eyes, placed his finger in the middle of his spiked moustache, and raised his eyebrows mysteriously.
"Monsieur must not ask me," he replied. "I have been on duty for forty-eight hours; there was not even time to change my uniform."
"A little matter for headquarters?" I ventured indiscreetly, with a nod in the direction of Paris.
Pierre shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Monsieur must ask the semaphore; my lips are sealed."
Had he been the chief of the Secret Service just in possession of the whereabouts of an international criminal, he could not have been more uncommunicative.
"And monsieur's artichokes?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject.
Further inquiry I knew was useless—even dangerous. Indeed I swallowed my curiosity whole, for I was aware that this simple gardener of mine, in his official capacity, could put me in irons, drag me before my friend the ruddy little mayor, and cast me in jail at Bar la Rose, had I given him cause. Then indeed, as Pompanet said, I would be "A sacre vagabond from Pont du Sable."
Was it not only the other day a well-dressed stranger hanging about my lost village had been called for by two gendarmes, owing to Pierre's watchful eye? And did not the farmer Milon pay dearly enough for the applejack he distilled one dark night? I recalled, too, a certain morning when, a stranger on the marsh, I had lighted Pierre's cigarette with an honest wax-match from England. He recognized the brand instantly.